This has become a common refrain among the cautious—and it’s wrong.
About the author: Craig Spencer is an emergency-medicine physician and director of global health in emergency medicine at New York Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center.
For many fully vaccinated Americans, the Delta surge spoiled what should’ve been a glorious summer. Those who had cast their masks aside months ago were asked to dust them off. Many are still taking no chances. Some have even returned to all the same precautions they took before getting their shots, including avoiding the company of other fully vaccinated people.
Among this last group, a common refrain I’ve heard to justify their renewed vigilance is that “vaccinated people are just as likely to spread the coronavirus.”
This misunderstanding, born out of confusing statements from public-health authorities and misleading media headlines, is a shame. It is resulting in unnecessary fear among vaccinated people, all the while undermining the public’s understanding of the importance—and effectiveness—of getting vaccinated.
So let me make one thing clear: Vaccinated people are not as likely to spread the coronavirus as the unvaccinated. Even in the United States, where more than half of the population is fully vaccinated, the unvaccinated are responsible for the overwhelming majority of transmission.
I understand why people are confused. In April, after months of public-health experts cautiously promoting the merits of vaccination, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky cited new real-world data of the shots’ effectiveness to jubilantly proclaim that “vaccinated people do not carry the virus.” The CDC later walked back her comment, but headlines such as “It’s Official: Vaccinated People Don’t Transmit COVID-19” had already given many the impression that in addition to their remarkable protection against infection with the coronavirus, the shots also prevented them from passing the illness on to others.
Scientists and researchers objected, warning that there weren’t enough data to support such a proclamation. Their concerns were prescient. As Delta first took hold early this summer and then quickly spread, our collective relief turned into dejection.
An outbreak in Provincetown, Massachusetts—in which 74 percent of the 469 cases were in the fully vaccinated—forced the CDC to update its mask guidance and issue a sad and sobering warning: Vaccinated people infected with the SARS-CoV-2 Delta variant can be just as contagious as unvaccinated people.
In the aftermath of the Provincetown announcement, many who had gotten their shots were confused about what the news meant for them, especially when headlines seemed to imply that vaccinated individuals are as likely to contract and transmit COVID-19 as the unvaccinated. But this framing missed the single most important factor in spreading the coronavirus: To spread the coronavirus, you have to have the coronavirus. And vaccinated people are far less likely to have the coronavirus—period. If this was mentioned at all, it was treated as an afterthought.
Despite concern about waning immunity, vaccines provide the best protection against infection. And if someone isn’t infected, they can’t spread the coronavirus. It’s truly that simple. Additionally, for those instances of a vaccinated person getting a breakthrough case, yes, they can be as infectious as an unvaccinated person. But they are likely contagious for a shorter period of time when compared with the unvaccinated, and they may harbor less infectious virus overall.